With the recent onslaught of neo-gialli and giallo tribute films and trailers appearing on the scene, you'd be forgiven for thinking we were reliving the golden age of Italian horror cinema. Visually arresting fare such as Amer seems to competently run through the generic tick-list of motifs (woman in peril: check; shadowy antagonist: check; obligatory fetishistic handwear: check), but is also characterized by a tangible lack. What have they done to giallo?
At their best, these fondly anachronistic thrillers – named for the yellow paperbacks they originated from (giallo is Italian for yellow) – transport us back to a time when directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento were gripping us in the palms of their black-gloved hands. Yet, despite the exhilarating resurgence of their visual tropes, the formal resurrection of the subgenre's lurid style never quite captures the essence of their inspiration.
The recently released trailer for directors François Gaillard and Christophe Robin's Last Caress, for example, evidences a slew of copycat references (they're calling it "glam gore"). Apparently a sexy boobs and blood-filled extravaganza – and there's nothing wrong with that – this kind of tribute never delves further than a skin-deep pastiche of the spaghetti thrillers' most titillating superficialities.
One might contend that it'd be impossible to engage audiences in any kind of thoughtful dialogue based on a subgenre that uses pulpy, trashy, or exploitive elements at its core. Placed in its historic context, however, gialli's influence on the American horror film is undeniable – and if you're a true blue fan, this isn't a notion you'll quickly dismiss. From inaugural examples of the form – which eschewed supernatural bogeymen like Jason, Michael, and Freddy in favor of human villains hiding severe psychological defects – through to Steve Miner's wholesale borrowing of death scenes from Mario Bava's Bay of Blood in Friday the 13th Part 2, it's clear that these Italian films paved the way for the entire slasher subgenre. The two forms eventually diverge, and slasher cinema forged its own unique identity, but the subgenre owes much to its Italian brethren.
Giallo's heady mixture of sex and violence is indeed a huge part of its draw, but there's also more to its thrillage than spillage. Wayward offshoots of the genre – such as A Quiet Place In The Country and Death Laid an Egg – use elements of the format to satirize decadence and exploitation in the business world, and frequently psychedelic subjectivity compels us to identify with its abnormal heroes and heroines. Elaborate nightmares such as Spasmo and Footprints On The Moon push this conceit to baffling limits, as the protagonist's addled mind twists the narrative into incoherence. Such cerebral elements of the medium are still ripe for exploration. All it needs is an adventurous filmmaker to come along and dig deep into the fertile soil of psychosis that made the best of these films so unforgettable. Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani's Amer is perhaps a trailblazer in this regard: an ambitious neo-gialli, the film simultaneously echoes and challenges the traditions of the genre. Exploring largely uncharted territory around female sexuality, the film purposefully inverts giallo's male gaze.
Often lacking in such razor-edge content, it's tempting to ascribe the return of the subgenre to blunted nostalgia. The stagnancy and risk aversion that the horror genre is often subject to is palpable, so how is giallo's redeployment any different? Foreign horror filmmakers aren't immune to this approach either, but there's always something intrinsically rewarding about watching the familiar filtered through an "alien" set of sensibilities, and made new. Is this why the most of the neo-gialli seem to be coming from foreign soil?
While homegrown efforts like 2012's A Flash of the Blade are hoping to travel back in time to Italy, gialli's bloodstained blossoms flower most vigorously nearer home. Let's take a look at five seminal films that helped the genre take root, and hooked audiences on the sinuous, stylish fix of these iconic flicks.
Blood and Black Lace
Mario Bava's unique directorial style wasn't something that audiences appreciated during the his lifetime, but the painter-turned-filmmaker crafted some of the most important entries in the subgenre, which have set the tone for Italy's finest since. While The Girl Who Knew Too Much is considered the first giallo by a technicality, his 1964 opus, Blood and Black Lace exerted more of a stranglehold on audiences – and Bava's biggest disciple, Dario Argento. A wicked whodunit set in a fashion house, superficial glamour veils the tawdry dissolution of its inhabitants (drug addiction, blackmail, murder, abortion … ). Blood and Black Lace set a dazzling precedent for the gialli subgenre with its technicolor palette, elaborate murder set pieces, mystery killer, and graphic violence. With this landmark, Bava set a bar for technical excellence seldom surpassed in gialli history.
Widely regarded as Argento's masterpiece, this 1975 story about a jazz pianist and a news reporter who try to unravel a murder mystery – with a psychic twist – marks the birth of Argento as a visual stylist. The Bava influence is clearly present, reflected in Argento's striking and symbolic camera angles, imagery, and color schematics – thanks in part to the beguiling work of production designer Giuseppe Bassan. Deep Red also marks the first time Argento worked with prog Gods, Goblin, who would later score a bewitching soundtrack for the maestro's other best-loved, Suspiria.
Don't Torture a Duckling
The Godfather of gore, Lucio Fulci, dished up an understated 1972 giallo filled with mystery and suspense that proved the director was capable of crafting more than gruesome FX (though we dearly love him for that). Duckling is much more restrained – shelving the eye gore and substituting subtle but scathing social commentary. Fulci's tale of madness in a rural village is a tense and engaging affair from start to finish.
The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
In 1971 Sergio Martino introduced us to one of giallo's most famous faces (and bodies), Edwige Fenech. The sexy starlet graced many of Martino's exotic and erotic tableaux – a playground of provocative visuals and stylish backdrops for the director's murderous jet setters. Martino's giallo debut is a sleazy and gripping melodrama featuring a kinky killer (Ivan Rassimov – another iconic gialli figure), whose perversions are made all the more haunting thanks to an eerie and beautifully melancholic score from Nora Orlandi.
What Have They Done to Solange?
Massimo Dellamano served as a cinematographer on several Italian features before he directed his 1975 giallo, What Have They Done to Solange? He cedes control of photography to Italian horror pornographer, Joe D'Amato for his seedy schoolgirl murder mystery and police procedural that contains some surprising sociocultural parallels. Solange is an interesting example of how giallo's narrative could be altered when combined with other subgenres – in this instance, the German crime stories known as "krimi."